The dynamic nature of online services and information makes maintenance of accessibility a critical issue. Web sites that are designed to be accessible will still need updates and revisions, just as any Web site does. If your site has been built according to accessible design standards, or if your dynamic pages have been logically constructed with accessibility in mind, this will not be difficult. Probably the single most important factor is for company management to commit to accessibility up front. A policy of accessibility "from this point forward" may be chosen following review of employee and customer needs. When businesses look at thousands, then thousands more or even millions of company Web pages, they may feel that the task of retrofitting all of these for accessibility is close to impossible. We suggest creating a special interest group for accessibility with representation from key departments.
Assembling an Accessibility Team
We recommend that your team make an initial assessment of the level of awareness within the company of general accessibility issues the need, the benefits, and the law. The team members should survey key staff to measure the overall understanding of the opportunities that technology has created for people with disabilities. The accessibility team will then be able to determine the extent to which the company is prepared to fully include people with disabilities as both producers and consumers. It is important, as you develop this working group within your company, to include human resources representatives, information technology professionals, and especially people with disabilities who are employed by the company.
The group members can then determine the means to gather information about internal company awareness of issues that can guide them as they make an information technology accessibility plan. They will probably want to make assessments about key management and staff awareness of the size of the market share of the population of people with disabilities. They should determine to what extent staff is aware of different kinds of disabilities, the impact of an aging population, and the numbers of people with disabilities who are online. Many of the other topics we have covered in this chapter, including knowledge of emerging government accessibility standards and the business benefits of creating information technology that people with disabilities can access, might be included in an initial survey. The team might also want to investigate whether the staff knows about the ways in which assistive technology levels the playing field by enabling people with disabilities to be independent and productive or about available resources for tapping into this underutilized potential work-force. The team must also include technology specialists who stay abreast of emerging technology developments and tools.
Developing a Plan
Once these assessments have been made, the accessibility team can determine what next steps would be appropriate. This may include training designed to increase awareness of identified issues of concern to the company, introduction to resources, successful hiring and retention practices, and/or hands-on tools and techniques for accessible Web design. This process will result in the development within your company of a working accessibility team with access to training and employment resources throughout the communities in which the company has facilities.
The team will probably develop a stated commitment and demonstration of Web accessibility to include in company materials, employee orientation, and community outreach. As its understanding of the issues grows, the group can create an accessibility policy that clearly articulates design standards and testing procedures for future Web page development. It will be very helpful to develop a procedure that provides to anyone who experiences access barriers on preexisting pages an alternative for retrieving needed information. This may be as simple as a disclaimer on key pages stating that if users experience accessibility problems, they can send an e-mail to a specific address or call a customer help number. Customer support staff must be given appropriate avenues to follow in this contingency in order for it to be most effective. Once again, an indication that your company is aware of the need for alternative means of accessing information creates enormous goodwill.
Let's see how these elements might work together in a product development environment. Prodigy Communications CTO Bill Kirkner and his development team created an excellent model of how company policy can create a strong foundation for accessible products. As they developed the next generation of their online user interface and customer console, for launch at the end of 2001, they followed the general procedure outlined below.
Goals analysis: Aware of the growing consensus for accessible design, the company made the commitment to accessibility at the outset and incorporated it into the overall business plan for the new products.
Team consensus: In order to ensure that the development team understood the challenges and opportunities of accessibility, all development staff and management were trained to accessibility standards. The accessibility team included representatives from all departments.
Early design phase: Integration of accessibility training and user interface specifications into the early design phase was aided by user testing.
Middle design and early implementation phase: Prodigy continued to test and improve the accessibility of the user interface and scalable back-end applications.
Beta testing: At this point, Prodigy invited us to view the developing products prior to launch and to identify any issues or accessibility concerns. We engaged in a useful dialog and, al-though there were still some issues to be resolved, were impressed with the company's effort. We looked forward to the launch of a public portal that allowed for greater accessibility than either of us had previously encountered.
Launch: As of this writing, Prodigy has been acquired by SBC, so the fate of the accessible engine that drove this software is unknown. SBC has partnered with Yahoo! to provide portal services to its online customers, and we hope that the accessible technology pioneered by Prodigy will be included as the mergers and partnerships take shape.
Exact outcomes for your own products, of course, will be predicated on your particular circumstances and your staff, customer, and company needs. The point is to examine the opportunity and the need and to make a plan that is consistent with your own business objectives. Businesses throughout the country are realizing the benefits of including people with disabilities in their customer outreach and employee recruitment efforts.